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Death-Defying Drama

On the Offensive

Abe Rybeck, The Theater Offensive's artistic director, tells Joe Antoun about bringing a Puerto Rican mother, a Jewish drag queen, and the Immaculate Infection to the Boston Center for the Arts.

By New York City
Rybeck as Mary Cohn, and Ortiz Cortes asYolanda in Immaculate Infection
Rybeck as Mary Cohn, and Ortiz Cortes as
Yolanda in Immaculate Infection
Abe Rybeck is a riot. That should come as no surprise to those in the Boston theater community who know the work of this colorful performer, playwright, and artistic director of The Theater Offensive, a company dedicated to forming and presenting the diverse realities of queer life. What may surprise audiences is what a serious riot he raises as an activist for the rights of individuals living with HIV. And that is the subject of his upcoming new play Immaculate Infection, created by Rybeck, Brenda Cotto Escalera, and Noelia Ortiz Cortes, and presented by The Theater Offensive at the Boston Center for the Arts June 8 through June 24.

Immaculate Infection is an adventure story about a widowed Puerto Rican mother and her first day attempting to get treatment for HIV. When Yolanda runs into Mary Cohn ("maricon" is Spanish for faggot), a Jewish drag queen and long time survivor, they seem like oil and water, but they soon learn about themselves and what they can offer each other as they face the horrors of loss and the threat of death. Issues of class, race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, language, and cultural tradition get tangled up in their tale of human independence and survival.

Immaculate Infection was conceived while Rybeck was working as an AIDS activist in Costa Rica, where the largest HIV populations are heterosexual women and gay men. He became fascinated with the cultural differences between the two demographics and the different needs of housewives with HIV and positive gay men. "The struggle between the two groups is fascinating and powerful and familiar," he says.

The collaborators began working on the piece a year and a half ago. They did workshops with HIV positive adults and kids that explored how different cultures deal with the struggle. "We didn't use their stories," Rybeck explains. "We used the texture of their lives--we used their relationships." The early development of the piece came by way of working with the AIDS Action Committee, Boston Living Center, and Casa Iris, an agency started by a woman who felt she was not being served by AIDS services. "I learned a lot off the bat. A lot was learned around sharing food. Sharing food is a key image in Immaculate Infection."

Rybeck says he spent decades trying to understand his own white-male privilege--and this show challenges it. "If all these gay white guys grew up with privilege, what's the perk? How can we get something out of it? What can our community get from it? I don't think me pretending to have no privilege is the answer to what use can it be."

Rybeck is thrilled to be working in a show with two of his favorite artists. All three creators have other artistic roles in Immaculate Infection: Cotto Escalera directs the production, Rybeck plays Mary Cohn, and Ortiz Cortes play Yolanda. "Brenda creates work with a direct style. She has vast knowledge of international theater strategies," says Rybeck. "Noelia is one of my favorite actresses: Anna Magnani with a sense of humor. These two women made me think about what you do with the fact that you really might die, [think about the fact] that there must be a way of living that is about survival yet remains true to the experience of dying." The right and quest for survival hold a special fascination for Rybeck.


"Growing up in West Virginia with so much happiness around, it never occurred to me that I would live through a holocaust. 'Never Again' seemed like a thing I could believe. Ironically, my first friend to get sick was Puerto Rican. I started wondering how a young person can be himself and be dying. Some people survive because they wouldn't know how to die. Surviving is what they know how to do." Rybeck is intrigued by people's approach to their own survival. "For some there is this sense of entitlement, where they think, 'Dammit, I deserve to be on this planet.' Yet we have to find out how to make it okay to be the person who is needy, who may not be here tomorrow, who has to find out how to let go." The individual's right to survival is central to Immaculate Infection and to Rybeck's work as an artist and activist. "People need a change in their perception of whether they deserve to live. People, especially kids, need to know their life is of value".

Rybeck's activism goes back to the beginning of the AIDS crisis, and has taken on many artistic forms. "Like many people, I denied as long as I could muster. It dawned on me that if someone walked in with a gun and threatened to shoot my friends, I would do something. I was working at Cambridge Food Co-op [now part of Harvest Cooperative Markets], and realized that my contribution had to be more than putting a little sign on the pumpkin seeds stating that they helped boost your immune system." So he quit his full-time job and dedicated himself to queer theater.

With the United Fruit Company, the predecessor to The Theater Offensive, he would do safe-sex guerrilla theater in gay cruising areas. "It served its purpose better than a stage, and much better than sitting in an antiseptic room putting condoms on bananas." He used these experiences while working as an activist in Costa Rica, where HIV is a large problem. He ran safe-sex and theater workshops, traveling back and forth over a three-year period. This culminated in the first Costa Rican gay theater troupe. And from the seeds of the Costa Rican experience sprang Immaculate Infection.

Rybeck's work over the years has resulted in many awards, both as an artist and an activist, including a 1999 Elliot Norton Award, an AIDS Action Committee Unsung Heroes Award, an award for individual excellence from the Greater Boston Business Council, and Peace and Justice Award from the City of Cambridge.

As an artistic director, Rybeck is aware of the need to sell an AIDS play. "People see the issues as tired, but the issues are as real as ever and as tough as ever. Our expression and art is what needs work." He adds, "The series of scenes which are supposed to be in an AIDS show are all missing." Immaculate Infection, Rybeck says, is "not a comedy, but very funny--not a tearjerker, but a very emotional show."

The Boston premiere of Immaculate Infection runs from June 8 through 24 in the Black Box Theater at the Boston Center for the Arts. A Spanish-language premiere of the play will be presented by Yuyachkani Theater at the Latin American Human Rights Theater Festival in Lima, Peru, June 25-30. The Spanish-language version will also be presented at the Latin American Institute for Prevention Education and Health, one of the world's leading AIDS activist organizations, in San Jose, Costa Rica, in February.


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